Reviews Plymouth Published 25 September 2014

The Angry Brigade

Theatre Royal Plymouth ⋄ 18th September – 4th October 2014

The furies.

Belinda Dillon

1970s London: a Tory government, the economy in meltdown, everyone dressed in brown. A series of explosions targeting MPs, embassies and the police rock the capital, and Scotland Yard establishes a specialist squad to track down the perpetrators. ‘Is it the Irish?’ asks newly appointed squad leader Detective Sergeant Smith. ‘You’ll wish it was the Irish,’ replies his boss, and hands over the printed communiques that reveal this to be a home-grown threat from a group with an intellectually driven agenda: to wake up the populace to the corruption and inequality at the heart of the system; to expose the tyranny of capitalism; to smash the government and its ‘vicious class war … We have started to fight back and the war will be won by the organised working class, with bombs.’
 
James Graham’s new play, based on anarchist group The Angry Brigade’s 1971 bombing campaign, lays out the events from both sides and in doing so reveals a movement driven by the same concerns about inequality, corruption and a disconnected political class that dominate today. The similarities are echoed in the cast doubling – the four actors play officers and anarchists, as well as various informants and witnesses – and James Grieve’s trigger-quick production has a lot of fun with it. 
 
The first half throws us into the incident room of the newly formed police unit (which would ultimately become the Met’s Bomb Squad) as they try to understand their quarry and connect the dots to rout them out. As hauling in known associates, reading Guy Debord and testing the office chairs for alternative ways of sitting bring them increasingly closer to their targets, disruptions in the status quo appear – ties are loosened, desks shoved at rakish angles, physical boundaries crossed – although the fourth wall remains intact. If at times it veers into parody, the Life on Mars-style comedy cultural references enhanced by the televisual naturalism, the dialogue crackles with wit and intelligence, and there’s a palpable sense of the thrill of the chase. We infer that The Angry Brigade is a formidable force, with a genuine chance of igniting a revolution. ‘If they’re all that clever,’ says DS Smith, ‘I don’t think any of us stands a chance.’ 
 
So it’s with a slightly jarring stumble that the second half – set in The Angry Brigade’s Stoke Newington squat – delivers a series of didactic monologues and duologues that flatten the energy established in the first half, despite the frantic pace and the percussion of colliding cabinets. Perhaps that’s the point – these aren’t, it seems to imply, highly trained urban guerrillas to rival Baader-Meinhof after all, just four idealistic graduates who’ve read too many books – but it undermines the validity of the overall message as I saw it: that their arguments for change were, and still are, completely valid, and it’s a wonder that we’re not all as furious as they were. 
 
And although the walls are down – within the squat, and between performers and audience –and the narrative looser (we shift between the present, the characters’ memories, and ironic re-enactments of TV commercials and pop songs), the second act occasionally feels overburdened by the mirroring of episodes and interactions from the first. More stillness here, too, more space around potentially powerful moments – such as when Anna (a superb Patsy Ferran) responds to rejection by making a decision that will prove their undoing – would allow greater insight into their characters and motivation. 
 
As Smith/John Barker, Felix Scott channels intelligence, quiet conviction and authority. Taking on the most roles, Harry Melling plays the majority for laughs, but his intense and serious Jim Greenfield, whose politicization began in a home where his mother suffered under the yoke of domestic drudgery and violence, is the most fleshed-out character. It’s his relationship with Anna that offers a way into their narrative, just as Anna reaches across the acts to make a connection with DC Smith and her old life. It’s here that the piece offers a glimpse of the people behind the ideology, at their humanity and vulnerability, and raises the question of how much of our lives we would be willing to jettison in the pursuit of a better, fairer world.

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Belinda Dillon

Originally from London, Belinda is an editor and writer now living in Exeter. She goes to as much theatre as the day job will allow. When not sitting in the dark, or writing about sitting in the dark, she likes to drink wine, read 19th-century novels and practice taxidermy. Your cat is very beautiful. Is it old?

The Angry Brigade Show Info


Produced by Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth

Directed by James Grieve

Written by James Graham

Cast includes Patsy Ferran, Scarlett Alice Johnson, Harry Melling, Felix Scott

Link http://www.theatreroyal.com/

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